Active Universities

Active Universities

Columbus, Ohio may not sound like an outdoors mecca, but OSU made a bid to fix that when it completed its Outdoor Adventure Center in 2004. This massive facility boasts a 4,000 square foot climbing wall and bouldering cave, equipment rental for backpacking and paddle trips, and—arguably coolest of all—in-house adventure planners to help you coordinate outings “into the wilderness of Ohio, North America, or beyond.” The OAC also leads clinics on outdoors skills like kayak rolling and has a calendar of low-cost trips. Past and future outings include sea kayaking in the Everglades, whitewater rafting in West Virginia, and rock climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge.

It’s no surprise that this university in the land of 10,000 lakes has a strong outdoors presence. Like Ohio State, the University of Minnesota has its own outdoors center, the Center for Outdoor Adventure, which also has a climbing wall, equipment rental, and a complement of trips and clinics. What really sets this campus apart, though, is its Nordic Ski Center, which converts the university-owned golf course into groomed skiing trails in the winter. Beginners can sign up for a cross-country skiing clinic and rent skis on campus.

This tiny liberal arts school in Anchorage not only has all the recreation an outdoors junkie could dream of, but it has “active learning” built into its mission, meaning students in the Outdoor Studies department can take such field classes as ice climbing, sea kayaking and backcountry skiing and have them count towards a degree. APU also has an extensive trail system that links up with the city’s 400 miles of trails, and is home to the Nordic Ski Center, which has trained Olympians.

Bounded by redwood forests to the north and meadows overlooking Monterey Bay to the south, UC Santa Cruz has miles of picturesque hiking and mountain bike trails on campus, and a wide variety of programs to get students (even more) outdoors. The school offers recreational classes in surfing, wilderness survival, scuba diving as well as backpacking trips to places like Pinnacles, Big Sur and Yosemite. Of course, you can rent just about any equipment you need on campus, but if cycling’s your game and you’re low on cash, enter the lottery to “check out” a bike from the campus “Bike Library” on a quarterly basis.


Universities have long been investing in big, state-of-the-art recreation centers, but with more than 500,000 square feet of indoor rec space, the University of Texas, Austin stands out for sheer size. The university boasts eight rec facilities and 40 acres of outdoor activity space. Everything truly is bigger in Texas. For those students interested in learning how to improve their workouts and productivity, they can head over to the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center, a research facility solely devoted to physical culture and sports.

These two campuses of the University of Hawaii system are on this list not so much for their school-sponsored activities—UH-Manoa can teach you how to surf, stand-up paddle, and sea kayak, and UH-Hilo has a comprehensive scuba training program—but because they’re surrounded by the active paradise that is Hawaii. An hour from Oahu’s North Shore, UH-Manoa is right in the heart of surfing’s honorary capital. UH-Hilo, on Hawaii’s Big Island, is near Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and offers a range of activities through its Outdoor EdVenture program.


The Badgers of Wisconsin have always had a knack for being active and getting outdoors, at least since John Muir was a student in the 1860s. The Wisconsin Hoofers, founded in 1931, is one of the largest student groups on campus and is an umbrella for six clubs (mountaineering, outing, riding, SCUBA, sailing, ski & snowboarding) and five competitive teams drawn from those activities. The Outing Club, in particular, offers a packed calendar of trips and clinics where most equipment is provided free of charge.

This Burlington, Vermont campus is close to both Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains, which is why its Outing Club has been going strong for 81 years. In the group’s own words, “Every UVM student is a member of the Outing Club,” meaning students have access to not only a long list of affordable hiking, ice climbing and skiing trips, but also outdoor certification classes and UVM’s very own cabin near the Bolton Valley ski area.

Located in what National Geographic Adventure calls one of the world’s best ski towns, Montana State University has the kind of outdoor recreation you’d expect from a campus so close to Yellowstone and Big Sky. Its Outdoor Recreation Program offers students dirt-cheap trips to incredible places, like a 5-day, $225 trek to Utah’s Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. MSU has an on-campus bike and ski workshop, and of course classes in climbing, kayaking and avalanche safety—not to mention gear.

An obvious choice for this list, the University of Colorado, Boulder is in one of the most active cities in America. An hour from Rocky Mountain National Park and a gateway to Colorado’s famous ski areas, Boulder is a natural location for a university with a top-notch outdoors program, an 80-year-old ski and snowboard club that’s the largest on campus, and a bike share program with free short-term rentals. With 88 percent student participation in recreational sports, the university will soon have students' fitness needs covered with a $63.5 million upgrade to its rec facilities, to be completed in spring 2014.